I’ve been baking since I could reach the oven, I think. I’ve long joked that my mom is secretly Betty Crocker’s little sister, and she was teaching me how to make chocolate chip cookies and good old Southern red velvet cake as soon as she could (red velvet cake was my big brother’s favorite).
A few years ago, I really ramped up my baking and my coworkers began to tell me “you should open a bakery!” “Sure!” I’d say, “just give me a few thousand dollars!” At a friends’ Fourth of July barbecue one year, one of the hosts asked if I’d heard of the Cottage Food Laws. He explained Washington state had just recently adopted them, and they allowed people to run food businesses out of their homes.
Excited, I went home and researched this. Unfortunately at the time, I was daunted. I’d need space to store all the ingredients for the bakery separately from my personal ingredients, and fill out a long application, submit all my recipes… I lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle with my cat. I was strapped for kitchen space as it was, and was overwhelmed by all the rules and requirements and paperwork. No bakery for me.
Fast-forward. I was working at a new job, and someone asked if I’d bake some cupcakes for her if she paid for the ingredients. Well, yeah, of course! Once I delivered, she insisted on overpaying – “tipping” – generously. My brain went, “heeeyyyy. People really WILL pay me to do this thing that I already enjoy doing. SCORE.”
Total honesty: there is nothing like having a day job that isn’t fulfilling you, isn’t leaving you feeling productive or gratified at the end of the day, to motivate you into pursuing your dream. I began researching Cottage Food Operation Laws again. By now, I’m living in a large house with my partner, and when we moved in we remodeled the kitchen out of sheer necessity. He was full of encouragement, and I was full of ennui. Why not go for it?
I started searching, and one of the first things I found was a blog that stated right up front, “Washington is probably the most difficult state for someone to get started as a cottage food operator.”
Here’s what I discovered I would need:
- Cottage Food Permit
- Food Handler’s Permit
- Washington State Business License
- Seattle City Business License
- Food Liability Insurance (not required for Cottage Law, but required if you want to do fairs, markets, etc, and also just smart to have since you’re serving food to strangers)
And later down the line, I found that for fairs, festivals, and markets I would also need a temporary food service permit – for every single day of every single event: a separate permit. Which costs money every single time.
I started with the easy parts. A food handler’s permit is only 10 dollars. You take this almost insultingly easy test online – seriously, there is a cartoon meat thermometer with a mustache wearing a chef’s hat – that takes maybe half an hour, tops. Then you pay your $10 and print out your permit and feel like you’ve accomplished something. That’s a good feeling, and one you’re going to want to remember later in this process, trust me.
Next, the Washington State Business License. It took me a while to settle on what kind of business I should go with, but I ended up with Sole Proprietorship, since that’s the easiest and I felt like I really had enough on my plate to begin with. I used to work at a company that helped people start their own businesses, and a friend of mine who still works there sent me some good information. What I decided was that since it is ultimately very easy to change a sole prop down the line, and a Cottage Food Operation isn’t even legally allowed to gross more than $15,000/year, it wasn’t like I was going to blow up and start hiring employees and become an overnight success anyway (though that’s the dream, isn’t it?).
State business license: check. That was a pretty exciting thing to get in the mail, that’s for sure. It was immediately framed and hung on the wall above my decorating desk in the kitchen! Next: city business license, weirdly more expensive than the state license. This was one of my Adventures In Business Ownership. I filed for the license in late November and the check was cashed on December 10. At the time that I filed, the fee for a city business making less than x amount was $45. I specifically indicated on my application that I was filing for 2015, not 2014, because I knew I wouldn’t have my CFO permit until 2015. I was pointing everything toward January 1st, 2015.
I waited. And waited. Aaaaaaaaaaaand waited. December was a bit hectic, what with that major holiday and all, and then New Year’s, and I thought maybe I’d just misplaced it or missed it or something. I went back through my mail. No license. Finally, maybe toward the end of January or early February, I looked up my business on the city website. Well… there I am… so I emailed the customer service email. Someone responded that the fee was $55 so I owe them $10 and I need to log in on this website and pay that.
Um? I checked the fees, and sure enough, in 2015 they’d gone up. Never mind that when I filed and paid, they hadn’t listed the new prices yet. Never mind that nobody bothered to get in touch with me about this when they happily cashed my check. Okay, so I go to the website and… hm. To register for a login, you need to have your BUSINESS LICENSE NUMBER. Guess who doesn’t have a business license? Guess who said that in the original email to customer service?
I looked up where the city handled business licenses. A bit of a walk from my office, but not too bad. I like a good brisk jaunt now and then on my lunch breaks. So I went striding down there one day, went to the desk the arrows indicated, and signed in on the little sheet like an obedient law-abider and waited my turn. The man at the desk called me up and I told him that I’d applied for a city license some time back, paid my fee, my check had been cashed, but I apparently owed $10 more. He looked it up, said sho’ nuff, and printed something up. Then he pointed me to another counter 10 feet away and said they took payments. There were 2 women behind this counter and no line, but I still obediently (there’s that word again) stood next to the big sign that said “WAIT HERE” with a big red arrow.
And stood there. And stood there. The two women poked at the computers with bored looks, never once glancing up at me. After probably 10 minutes, one of them finally looked up, saw me, and called me over. I gave her the paper, paid her, and she printed out a paper for me – my license, my license! She gave it me, I started to leave, and then I saw… across the paper, in big friendly numbers: 2014.
I went back to the same woman at the counter, ignoring the big sign because again, there was NOBODY ELSE THERE, and I pointed out, “this says 2014.” She stared at me like I was trying to hand her my chewed-up gum and said, “We just take payments. You need to go over there” and pointed at the first desk I’d gone to.
By now, that guy was talking to someone else who was struggling with English, and there were a couple of people in the waiting area. I signed up again on the little clipboard and re-took my seat, frustrated, angry, and grateful I had my Kindle but largely unable to concentrate. When the man at the little desk started to call my name, he stopped mid-last-name and looked at me, confused. I smiled brightly and said “Hi again!” I explained the issue and luckily he was able to fix it quickly and get me the right license. He, at least, was pleasant.
So now I’d used up my entire lunch hour and had to sprint back to work, but I held in my hands a 2015 city business license for Bunneh Baking. One more thing to cross off my list.
One looming non-legal issue I needed to consider, though, was a business logo. Fortunately for me, I have a very talented artistic brother who owed me a favor. I gave him my vague ideas, and he sent me a bunch of sketches. I picked my favorite and told him the colors I liked, and he ran with it. What he gave me was the most adorable logo I could ever have wanted.
Now I have a food handler’s permit, a state business license, a city business license, a logo, and a nice long blog post. Next up: a gofundme campaign for the food liability insurance and the CFO application, the very long and tedious process of the CFO application, and the final, exhilarating, glorious moment when the inspector came to my house and signed off on a form that said YES, you are a pretty okay person and we will send you your CFO permit in a few days!